The federal government is seeking a new commissioner for the RCMP. Canada’s national police force needs new management and, last June, former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna was tasked with developing a short list for the prime minister.
Prospective candidates be warned: this will not be an easy job. Before accepting the position, any candidate should appreciate the issues they will have to address.
Stick to policing, not politics
The first is the increasing politicalization of what’s supposed to be a police force. Here are a few notable examples:
- In December 2005, at the height of the federal election, the Mounties took the highly unusual step of announcing that then-minister of finance, Ralph Goodale, was the subject of a criminal investigation, only to announce his exoneration in 2007. Police don’t announce when someone is under investigation, but rather when they’re ready to lay charges.
- During the 2013-2015 investigations into Senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau, Mac Harb and Pamela Wallin for supposed misspending, the government dumped their cases on the RCMP in an attempt to make what was a political problem into a criminal problem. (Duffy was eventually acquitted of all 31 charges laid against him. The cases against Harb and Brazeau were then dropped and Wallin was never charged.)
- Since last winter, the RCMP has been investigating the vice-chief of defence staff, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman. The current government, upset by the alleged leak of a cabinet confidence relating to a naval contract, co-opted the RCMP into launching what seems to be a fruitless investigation — in Ottawa, the city that leaks like a sieve, literally hundreds of people have access to cabinet documents. The investigation is a vengeful act of politics that has maligned a good man’s reputation.
A police force can only be effective if it stays out of politics. The next commissioner of the RCMP will do well to recall these incidents and work to avoid repetitions.
Embrace the creation of a civilian board
Establishing more effective oversight will also be a challenge. David Brown’s 2007 report RCMP Governance and Culture Change called for a civilian management board to bring the force in line with every other police service in Canada. Under his proposal, the commissioner would be solely responsible for policing, and the civilian board would deal with administrative matters. Right now, the RCMP commissioner is treated like any other deputy minister — there is no recognition that all peace officers have taken an oath that requires them to work independently of government.
Brown argued that a civilian board would profoundly change the relationship between the government and RCMP in a number of ways: being an independent source of advice to the commissioner; providing the commissioner with more flexibility in managing resources; strengthening the force’s ability to undertake strategic planning, etc. A civilian board would also provide a buffer between police and government.
Lousy pay is hurting the force
Even after a 4.8% raise in 2017, first class constables in the RCMP are paid $13,000 less than the top police services in the country. The government claims that members are better off than virtually all police services because of the benefits and pensions they receive. However, its presented no evidence to support this claim.
Understaffing is a pox on the Mounties
Understaffing is also a challenge. According to the Brown Report and the position paper “Towards a Red Serge Revival,” the RCMP is lacking between 4,000 and 7,000 regular members. Last year, there were 1,300 funded positions that the Mounties simply could not fill and nearly 1,000 positions that sat vacant due to long term sick-leave, parental leave or professional training.
There’s a number of problems. New recruits, whose average age is 28, are paid below minimum wage ($500 a week) during their 26 weeks of basic training. These folks have student loans, families, and mortgages to manage. Who wants to start a career by going into debt? Also, the long documented history of sexual harassment, abuse and bullying has made the RCMP unattractive to prospective candidates.
The burnout caused by understaffing means many are leaving the RCMP to join other police services with better pay and working conditions. This leaves the force with no swing capacity to deal with pressing threats or shifting priorities. Following the terrorist attack on Parliament Hill in 2014, Commissioner Bob Paulson was forced to move 500 members from organized crime to counter terrorism. As a result, some 300 investigations into organized crime have been put on hold.
The RCMP is a mess, and the next commissioner will have to take on the task of fixing it. Regular members are attempting to unionize, and that may provide some help addressing their grievances. But given the glacial pace of change in Ottawa, it could easily be years until the union is established. Before accepting the position, a prospective commissioner will need assurance from the prime minister that political support will be there. Otherwise, we’ll all just be looking at more of the same.
Colin Kenny is a senator representing Ontario. He is deputy chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence.